A Practical Example of How Attitudes Can Be Leverage or Obstacles in Critical Project Development Work
Aid Projects, Community Projects, Demonstration Sites, Education Centres — by Alex McCausland August 30, 2011
Editor’s Note: It’s a trend we’re increasingly seeing with permaculture unfortunately — that of the rise of permaculture perfectionists. Many readers have noticed this in comments on this and other permaculture sites, where people are quick to judge and criticise, feeling superior in their own problem-discovering skills, instead of taking pride in helping fledgling projects move forward, by way of encouragement and nurturing. I applaud Alex here for his dogged determination through blood, sweat and tears to keep building his much-needed permaculture demonstration site in one of the most needy parts of the world. I think we can all learn some lessons in humility here, and how to be appropriately constructive. For those who want to support Alex’s project in a more tangible way, consider attending Strawberry Field’s next PDC, starting October 17, 2011.
We ran a Training of Trainers course with Steve Cran at Strawberry Fields here in Ethiopia [editor's note - read much more about Strawberry Fields via Alex's author profile] in July, 2011. The course was not a great hit with many members of the group because they were unhappy with the living conditions at the lodge. Others felt it was over-priced. There was an outbreak of Typhoid amongst the group during the course and that put a big downer on things. Although, all agreed the training was top quality and we all learned a huge amount from the course.
It is true that it didn’t run perfectly for various reasons which I am going to give a detailed account of, from our perspective, over the next couple of weeks, along with more background on the history of the project, how we have got to where we are today, what we are doing now, and perhaps most importantly what we are planning to do in the future.
However, I would first like with this post to address some of the very public criticisms that one participant on that course has been making both on this website and other internet platforms as an apparent act of revenge for us in some way trespassing against her. Alison’s message on the latter site is as follows:
I stayed at SFEL in July 2011 for a Permaculture Design Course. The teacher was great, and we learned a lot of great practices on Permaculture. Unfortunately, our experience at SFEL was not as positive. One member in our class fell sick with Typhus from the lice/fleas in her bed, and the Management did not offer to change her bed sheets; did not offer to fumigate her room; did not offer to put her mattress outside in the sun; did not offer to shift her to another room. Nothing!
Then, seven other members in our class fell sick with Typhoid. It seems that some kitchen staff had been diagnosed with Typhoid, but were still working in the kitchen and serving food. Typhoid is highly contagious, and anyone diagnosed with Typhoid should be forbidden from cooking or serving food. Likewise, the staff latrine should be quarantined, especially when it is close to the kitchen and dining area, as it is at Strawberry Fields, but this was not done.
So, if you decide to stay at Strawberry Fields, make sure you go with your eyes open – public health and sanitation are not well observed. Make sure you have your immunizations, and come with a full round of broad spectrum antibiotics to treat whatever intestinal disorder may attack you.
Otherwise, it’s a nice place with good, fresh food”
Our response to Allison’s post is as follows:
Nice to see that you are highlighting these issues here as you have been in other places. However I feel that your portrayal of the situation is A) one-sided and completely unfair and B) out of line with Permaculture principals.
In Permaculture we believe in turning problems into solutions. You have highlighted these problems for us. However you don’t seem to be interested in a solution. In fact it seems more like you would prefer to see our business destroyed and our objective of training and implementing Permaculture in Ethiopia fail. I think that is callous and destructive and not how Christians were supposed to behave. You also declined to accept the refund we offered you since you were so dissatisfied with our living conditions. But have chosen instead a course of trying to rubbish our name on the internet with your exaggerated and inaccurate portrayal of the situation.
To address your portrayal of the situation:
- None of our kitchen staff were ever diagnosed with typhoid. That is a flat lie. Our receptionist was sick with typhoid the week before the course. As soon as we discovered that we stopped him serving food immediately. We should note that one of the other course participants was also sick with typhoid the week before the course before he had ever been near Strawberry Fields. There is no reason why he could not have been the source of contamination as he was interacting with the other participants more than any of our staff. That also demonstrates the fact that a) typhoid is common in south Ethiopia and b) anybody coming to the area should be vaccinated and should bring antibiotics with them (ciprofloxacin) in case they pick it up. We agree with you on that perfectly. We told you and all the other participants in our information sheet before you came to Ethiopia that you should have all necessary vaccinations and bring a medical kit.
– Regarding Stephanie, the girl that was diagnosed with typhus. When i heard she was sick I immediately offered to take her to the clinic. She refused. The course of action that you suggest I should have taken – fumigating her room etc. – was not suggested as we didn’t know what she was sick with. She never suggested to us that she had been bitten by bed bugs or flees as you are inferring, so how would we conclude that her room needed to be fumigated? In fact we deliberately didn’t ask her to move out of her room when we had a large group of tourists come, because she was sick. When she didn’t recover after taking some remedies of her own we took her to the clinic and paid for her treatment. She could equally have picked up typhus by playing with the cat.
– Stephanie was not the only student who got sick to refuse medical treatment. In fact Steve, the course trainer also refused treatment, and encouraged the students to do the same. I think it’s fair that if we are responsible for the general health of the class then the students should cooperate in getting treatment with the right diagnosis and the right medicine immediately so they don’t spread their infections to the rest of the class. This didn’t happen.
– The students were also going to town to drink local brew in the meat houses where the locals eat raw-meat. We discouraged this but that was looked upon as though we were spoil-sports. These places are rife with typhoid as all the patrons are drunk, have dirty hands and eat raw meat with the same dirty hands and drink local brew from glasses which aren’t washed properly. The students seem to me more likely to have picked up typhoid here than at Strawberry Fields.
You can put all of the blame on us if you like. I am not saying we have not got to improve our sanitation, we do and we are doing, but I feel that these points balance your story.
Now to focus on solutions – solutions are what Permaculture is all about – the rest of your class made a series of constructive recommendations on how to improve hygiene, sanitation, accommodation and working conditions at SFEL, and we have been making use of the proceeds from the course to implement these changes, and are working on them right now. (Thanks for not accepting the refund as that has really helped us in this regard.) And you can follow our progress on our facebook page.
Our approach to the issue of development has been to build up from the bottom. We accepted to live a local standard of living so that we can improve that standard in a way that is meaningful to the local community: IE If we can do it, they can too. And that is what we are doing. Steve has really taught us a lot on how to move forwards in that regard and the other students, especially Goose and Stephanie gave us a lot of helpful advice on how to improve things both in terms of infrastructure and operationally.
Accordingly we have outlined the following schedule of tasks and are working through them (you can follow our progress on the face-book page.
– Dousing the grass roofs with diesel on the interior to repel insects. The smell dissipates after a day or two but the effect lasts for months. STATUS: done
– Re-rendering walls to seal all gaps and craters that may house insects and painting inside and out with gypsum which also repels insects. STATUS: Nearly done.
– Replacing the wooden beds with mud-brick platforms filled with sand and rendered over and painted with gypsum. STATUS: Done on 2 of 11 rooms, in progress.
– We have installed a new solar system to give light in rooms 1 to 5 and are now purchasing an inverter so there will be 240V sockets in the rooms as-well. STATUS: Part complete, part planned.
– Building a new range with chimney so that smoke does not affect the health of the kitchen staff STATUS: Done
Get running water into the kitchen with a convenient hand so that staff can wash hands more conveniently. STATUS: In progress – pipes are now in place and we have attached temporary fittings. The sinks can be fitted once the walls are rendered.
– Build a facility for heating water for the kichen using exhaust heat from the range. STATUS: Planned and materials prepared, can proceed once other jobs are done.
– Fit doors and windows and render the walls of the new kitchen. STATUS: In progress, nearly complete.
– Build new furniture for the kitchen; work surfaces etc. STATUS: Planned and materials prepared.
Toilets and Sanitation
– We have a new compost toilet design that was suggested by Glen “Goose” McGrath who took the course and is a professional compost toilet builder. We have purchased the materials to build this design and will use the prototype for our new staff toilet at a new location more remote from the kitchen, behind our tree nursery. The other guest toilets are all functioning perfectly adequately, we have dug new pits and the design works fine as long as the operational procedure is followed and they are cleaned regularly, which they are. The problem with the staff toilet comes from the difficulty the staff have in grasping the concept of how it works, which stems from poor education and a general complete lack of toilet discipline in Ethiopia generally. STATUS: Planned and materials ready.
– Stephanie and Sam, two on the course participants ran a sanitation workshop for our staff before they left. They demonstrated using vinegar as a natural disinfectant and recommended we use different colour coded buckets and cloths for washing the toilets, showers, rooms and the kitchen. We have now bought these materials the cleaners are implementing their system effectively. We have also hired a second cleaner. STATUS: Working.
Staff and Management
– We have hired a new receptionist and a new lodge manager for the high season. They are both proficient in English, well educated and have experience working in the service industry.
– We have hired a new cook, Mirco, from Italy. He has revolutionised the management of the kitchen to make the cooking much less work-intensive. This has taken a lot of work-burden off Semira, my wife, so she is also happier and more effective.
– We have written a new operational code on the advice of Stephanie, and begun a program of weekly staff meetings with rewards for good performance to encourage better staff motivation and a spirit of teamwork. This is paying great dividends on staff moral.
Over all I feel, Alison, that we have taken on board your concerns, and those of the other students on the course who got sick. We are not claiming that everything was perfect. That is why we offered you a refund. You didn’t acknowledge that but preferred instead to go on a crusade to destroy our name. We however will turn this problem into a positive solution and an opportunity for progress. This is a chance the build on the course outcomes, the ideas and advice of the participants who encountered the same or worse problems than you did but had something positive to offer in response. It is clear that some people will obviously never be satisfied with the general standard of living in Ethiopia any way. We have adapted to those conditions and are now building up from that base of the local life-style. It is sometimes a shock for westerners coming into these conditions to be faced with them. That is why people coming should take all due precautions. Still I think that what we are doing is a far better way to approach development for communities than building western-style compounds with all the modern mod cons that you have been demanding while the locals around you live as a different species. And I think we deserve a chance to keep moving forwards without being slagged-off slandered like this.
What is really important to us is that our project has grown and will continue to grow by the input of the various different volunteers, guests and course participants that come to put their energy, ideas and skills into the place to build a real working example of Permaculture in the heart of food-insecure south Ethiopia. That is not just for us either but also for the Permaculture in Konso Schools Project which we have established in ten primary schools around Konso over the last 3 years. I can’t see what you hope to achieve by destroying our reputation here.
Apart from Alison’s destructive criticisms we also received various constructive criticisms as well as recommendations on how to improve the project for the future from almost all the participants in the group. What I want to show now is that we have taken all this on board and are acting accordingly. We have nothing to hide. We are not ashamed of what we are as a project. We have come from far more humble conditions than those encountered in July 2011 and I am sure by, the will of The One who writes the tale of all our destinies, we shall advance on to a much better stage than the one we are at now. As this was the most high profile course we have ever run, it follows that it was a big test for us, and, they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is especially true in Permaculture because we believe in turning problems into solutions. We have learned a huge amount from Steve on all of this and we are now implementing this knowledge, building on it and are ready to pass it on through practice.
The group outlined the current problems with our project and the suggested the following solutions too. I have also given a response to the recommendations and an outline of our progress so far:
There is a lack of effective access to hand washing facilities and showers for the staff and for the guests around the toilets.
Our plumbing system needs to be worked on. Part of the problem is that our composting toilet design is a moveable house that sits over a pit. Ash and straw are put on top on the “humanure” as it is used. If used properly the ash will repel flies and stop the smell, while the straw raises the C:N ratio and aerates the mix, also countering the smell. When the pit fills up it is covered over with soil and a new pit dug. The house is lifted up and placed over the new pit and a tree, usually a banana or a papaya, planted over the old one. Currently we use jerry-cans which have a tap on them and are filled by a jug by the cleaners each day. These often get empty and there is no water to wash hands after using the toilet.
Glenn “Goose” McGrath and Stephanie Douglass suggested a new design of composting toilet that would be fixed in one place with a removable receptacle (usually a wheely bin in the west, but probably a half oil drum with handles welded on the sides so it can be carried by two people will be used here) which is emptied periodically to a central composting point. That point can be far away from the domestic part of the project so it is not a sanitation issue for the guests. This will save labour because carrying the shit over there is a lot less work than digging a new grave for the next month’s batch of turds. It will also mean the toilets are fixed in one place so we can plumb in sinks next to them. It’s just a question of laying the pipes and fixing the fittings.
We will begin this project as soon as possible. We have not done so yet because we have been focussed on the kitchen at this stage. We have plumbed in running water to the kitchen and juggled our water tanks so that we have a 1000l header tank supplying the kitchen, the staff shower and the drip irrigation on the zone 1 garden. It’s not much capacity for all that but for now these are the biggest tanks we have access to. We have built a new range in the kitchen and have a plan to heat a small water tank using exhaust heat from the range. This is a work in progress at the moment and all the materials are ready.
For the moment however, Stephanie and Samantha Bruinwoud, another green warrior, ran a sanitation workshop for our staff during the course and left a series of recommendations for us on how to improve the sanitation to avoid the spread of infectious illnesses in the future: using vinegar as a disinfectant and having separate buckets for cleaning in the different parts of the lodge – for toilets, showers, kitchen and bedrooms with colour coded cloths. We have bought the materials they recommended and have begun implementing the system of cleaning they showed us.
As for staff showers, there were problems with staff abusing the showers in the past so it was ordered they would be regulated. Our manager seems to have taken this to the extreme and banned all staff from showering, which is ridiculous. We have now made it a point in our operational regulations that all staff shall take 3 showers per week of 15 minutes length.
The kitchen is inadequate in size, covered in soot and lacks proper food storage facilities, or a decent cooker with chimney to remove smoke and use fuel effectively.
We had already been building a new kitchen before the course. During the course Steve showed us how to build a new range in the new kitchen building using mud bricks and render. We have grasped this fantastic technique and subsequently modified and improved the design of that range to improve efficiency, add an oven/warming box and include more burners. You can see all this on our facebook page. We will subsequently install convenient hand washing and dish facilities with hot water heated by the exhaust from that range. We have a plan for this and have the materials ready.
We are now finishing off the walls of the new kitchen. Once the walls are complete the furniture will be built by our regular carpenter on contract and have made sure to include adequate screened food storage in the design, to prevent vermin from getting access to stored food. We have actually removed the long term food store from its previous location to become a sub-section of the kitchen so that food is no longer stored in the same room as farming and building materials, as it was previously. We are actively working on realising all these designs.
There is a lack of adequate capacity for rain-water storage and over-reliance of the project on mains water pumped from a local bore-hole, this is not good Permaculture.
This problem has been difficult to deal with for us for a long time due to financial and logistical constraints. We have dug 4 large dams on the site, one in gulley 2, one in gulley 3 and two on the main gulley (for site layout of gulleys and ridges, head here). But due to the poor quality of the base clay they do not hold water and have been breached during heavy rains but stand empty for most of the year. Of them all, only one holds water now. These dams were a large investment of labour, time and cash, so we have always been hesitant to invest more in them till we have a design that we are sure is going to work.
As for tanks, building or buying-in large storage tanks has always been part of our plan, but has also always been beyond our budget. Big cement tanks are not cheap or easy to build. There was no point in doing a botch job when we didn’t know what we were up to. Neither are plastic tanks cheap either. A 10,000 litre plastic tank in Ethiopia costs about US$1200 which is a huge outlay on our part and then there are the logistics of getting the tank from Addis to Konso, which means more cost.
Steve has shown us a new way to build tank-cisterns using earth-bags and render. Using this technique we can get about 4000L of storage for around $400. We built one of these tanks during Steve’s course at Gocha Primary School, with the green warriors (participants) and the school community. The tank was initially not holding water. We have made several follow up visits to Gocha since, during which, Fayisa, our mason, added another layer of render to the tank. The good news is that the tank now holds water and has filled up twice in the last month. The community used the water to mix mud for re-rendering their classrooms, which anybody who has seen the school will know was much in need. The mud was bought ages ago and had just sat there for a long time due to lack of adequate water. The project has already given the school a boost. Well done to all players involved on that one, we have really achieved something. From now on we hope they use the water for their garden though. (As usual you can follow our progress on our face-book page).
We have enough materials now on our site to do one tank like this at Strawberry Fields which would have a capacity of 4000 litre. I have also been considering modifying the design to use black plastic lining on the bottom so it can be wider without increasing the cement usage, as cement is the major cost, which would increase the capacity in proportion to the costs. The likely location for the first earth-bag cistern will be on the highest point on Ridge 3, which is the second highest point on the site, so can gravity feed to all areas, but can still catch water from the roof of the staff accommodation which has an area of 60m2. This will allow us to easily install a new staff shower right next to the staff accommodation too. We can limit usage by not connecting the shower to the cistern directly, but by having a separate shower tank that must be filled by a bucket from the cistern, so one shower is 20L – 1 jerry-can. That means the tank can hold 2000 showers. We will report back on this on our facebook page, as and when we do it.
The rooms need re-furbishing so they are less attractive to insects (and hence associated predators) and easier to clean. They also need working lights installed. This will make guests more comfortable and make them stay longer.
We have already embarked on our program of room re-furbishing and No 1 is already complete, with rooms 4 to 5 nearly ready to open for guests as well. We have removed the wooden beds and put in mud-brick platforms which are rendered with Steve’s magic formula render and painted over with gypsum. Externally and internally we are re-rendering the walls and painting on a slurry of cement-gypsum over the render as the students did on the class-room building during Steve’s course. The stone buttressing on the outside is getting re-painted to fill all the gaps in too. Fayisa, our mason, has been inspired by his participation on the course and is going at the work with a vengeance.
Internally, the roofs are getting a dousing down with diesel before all this work starts – not very PC but then that is the most effective way we can think of for getting rid of the bugs for the long term – and then when we finish them we are covering the insides of the roofs with local material. We are also making new blankets and curtains from local materials. We have purchased the materials for this as well as a full set of new sheets so that we can change sheets more easily – i.e. the cleaner no longer has to remove, wash, dry and replace the same sheets in a single day as she did before. We have also given the cleaner a pay rise and hired an assistant for her. They are both doing fantastic. You can follow our progress on all this on our facebook page!
We already had lighting installed in rooms 1 to 5 before the course (this was done by Padraig Kavanagh from Ireland – one of the most active and industrious volunteers we ever had, in March. We only wish his father had not got sick, so he could have stayed with us for longer… the guy was a hero…). These were originally powered by a windmill that Padraig also installed. Unfortunately it lost a limb in a storm which we have never been able to locate. Accordingly, during the course we brought a technician (Abdu, from Arbaminch) who installed a new solar system to power that lighting system during the course.
Unfortunately the capacity of the battery needed on a solar system is bigger, as the sun never shines at night which is when the light is used, while wind tends to be 24h. Hence the capacity of the battery that Padraig installed was not adequate for the solar system. We have now bought a bigger battery. We have got light in the rooms!
There is a lack of animal-systems incorporated into the design. The group recommended rabbits, chickens and milking goats. The local manures will increase productivity. A duck fertilizer tank system would work well.
Ducks would be great, if I can find some we’ll go for it. For the moment we are planning to do chickens. When our regular garden guy, Bahrudin, who has been on holiday, comes back we also have a plan to bring in bees, which he has experience with. This may all take a bit of time to get going. The reason we don’t have many animals now is that there is no point in having them unless they are going to be properly looked after. If we are not well prepared we would be foolish to rush in with animal systems. I got rid of our chickens because I was sick of seeing them suffering when people who were supposed to give them water and feed them, etc., didn’t show up. Unhappy chickens don’t lay any eggs either so it’s a waste of time and money as well as being immoral. We need to prepare responsible people to keep them as well as good housing etc. If we can get in some good long-term interns these are projects we can work on with them.
Make use of skilled volunteers and willing students to assist you in your rebuilding phase. Treat them with respect and pay attention to what they achieve. Post a gallery of their achievements.
This is true and we have been posting on our volunteers achievements on our facebook page for some time, though we will do so more regularly and with more detail from now on. We have now got in two new fantastic interns; Geraldine from Dublin, who has taken on managing the garden. She has been helping us implement our plans at the operational level far more effectively. She has also started giving English lessons to our staff each evening. Mirco is our new chef. He is Geraldine’s partner and is from Italy. He has re-organised the way the kitchen is managed to make it more efficient. Semira, as you will know if you been to SFEL, is a great cook, but the way she operates the kitchen is very labour intensive, and she puts most of the burden on herself. Mirco has changed all this and is training the other support staff how to work better as well. Moral in the kitchen has shot up. Mirco has really helped us and he’s only just started. The best bit is that Semira and I are able to go on holiday for a rest!
A lack of positive feedback to the staff and an unstructured management system resulting in a lack of team-work and poor moral amongst the staff.
Two key suggestions were made on this by Stephanie Douglass, who’s advice has really helped us improve the management and the staff moral. One was to write up an operational manual for the company, which clearly defines the roles, rights and responsibilities of each and every staff member, the penalties for breaking the rules, the rewards for effort and initiative, etc. We have now done this. Her second recommendation to improve motivation was to hold weekly staff meetings and hand out prizes for good work to the person who’d been doing the best that week; a sort of worker-of-the-week award.
We have many volunteers coming through and even guests, who leave donations of clothing or other items for the staff. However we should ask them to donate it not directly to the workers, but to us so that we can use it as prizes to reward good work. Last week we had our first such meeting. We unveiled our operational procedures to each department on the project, so that all staff are now clear about what they are required to do according to official company regulations. We also gave rewards to the best workers in the following departments for progress in their work: Kitchen – Sabah (got some trousers left by Stephanie), House keeping – Hirut (got a hairbrush left by Fanny, our recent volunteer from Spain), Vehicle – Gosai our new driver (got a fancy pen, also left by Fanny), Farm and Construction – Kusse (got some shorts also left by Stephanie).
I would like to give a big thanks to Stephanie for this advice as it has really improved the working atmosphere on the project for everybody, including, perhaps most of all myself and also Wessen, our manager. Steph, i will send you a copy of the operational manual, it’s really just a draft at this stage, but we will keep updating it as we go.
Last of all I would like to invite all or any of you to come and help us with our work in south Ethiopia. We are working in development on the front line here, at the local community level. We are developing a real lasting and appropriate model of Permaculture both on our own project site and in our local Permaculture in Konso Schools Project which has been established, lead and developed by Tichafa Makovere, who is also our resident Permaculture trainer and consultant.
We are not a fancy, luxury place. Our philosophy is that if you really want to tackle poverty you should be able to feel what it’s like to be poor and be able to work up from that base, which is that we have been doing. We can make great use of your skills, energy and enthusiasm, as well as the financial support that you will bring with you to help develop us and our mission out here. We offer volunteering positions as well as longer term internships and we run regular PDCs. Our next one is in October and after that will be in December. Come along and help us, we are doing it, not just talking about it. Be Mr Today, not Mr Tomorrow. ;)